WASHINGTON – Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg returned to the Supreme Court for the final time Wednesday under circumstances she and her legions of liberal allies and admirers hoped would never happen.
Even as President Donald Trump readied a potential replacement for the justice, who died Friday after a lengthy battle with cancer, Ginsburg's family, close friends, more than 100 former law clerks and colleagues on the high court gathered for one last goodbye.
The flag-draped casket of the 87-year-old justice was carried up the stairs to the Supreme Court's Great Hall, just outside the courtroom – its entrance draped in black – where she served for 27 years. Her clerks, wearing black masks to guard against the coronavirus, stood socially distanced and in silence on the courthouse plaza in a show of solidarity.
“To be born into a world that does not see you, that does not believe in your potential, that does not give you a path for opportunity or a clear path for education, and despite this to be able to see beyond the world you are in, to imagine that something can be different – that is the job of a prophet," said Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, whose husband, Ari, is a former Ginsburg law clerk. "And it is the rare prophet who not only imagines a new world but also makes that new world a reality in her lifetime. This was the brilliance and vision of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg."
Chief Justice John Roberts, the only other speaker, said Ginsburg's life "was one of the many versions of the American dream." The daughter of a bookkeeper, she rose to the highest court in the land, writing 483 majority opinions, concurrences and dissents that "will steer the court for decades."
Ginsburg dreamed of becoming an opera virtuoso, Roberts said, "but she became a rock star instead" – a reference to the justice's emergence late in life as the cultural icon "Notorious RBG."
"She found her stage, right behind me in our courtroom,” the chief justice said. Her voice was soft, he noted, "but when she spoke, people listened."
After the brief ceremony, Ginsburg's casket was placed at the front portico of the court for two days of public viewing, during which social distancing will be enforced to guard against the pandemic that has claimed more than 200,000 lives.
Among those who visited were former President Bill Clinton, who nominated Ginsburg to the Supreme Court in 1993, and former secretary of state and U.S. senator Hillary Clinton, who probably would have named Ginsburg's successor had she won the presidency in 2016.
Many of those who traveled from throughout the nation waited more than 90 minutes to pass by the casket. The White House announced that Trump would pay his respects Thursday.
Then the late justice will be moved across the street to the U.S. Capitol, where on Friday, she will become the first woman to lie in state since the honor initially was bestowed on Henry Clay in 1852. At both locations, Ginsburg's casket will rest on the Lincoln Catafalque, which supported President Abraham Lincoln's casket in the Capitol after his assassination in 1865.
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A private interment service will be held next week at Arlington National Cemetery, where Ginsburg will join her husband, Martin, who died in 2010.
'She never quit'
It was a familiar scene at the high court, where current and former justices and clerks have mourned with families and friends twice in the past four years. Associate Justice Antonin Scalia was lain in repose there in 2016. Retired Associate Justice John Paul Stevens, who lived to be 99, received a similar honor last year.
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Outside the court, hundreds of people gathered early in the morning to pay their respects. Kate Blanton traveled from Columbia, South Carolina, to show her support.
“There’s few people in our generation that have had as great of an impact on equal rights and women’s rights as Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” Blanton said. “I think she’s just a beacon of hope for women and everyone else, too.”
“It’s humbling that such a tiny lady with such a soft, gentle voice, with the strength of a superhero, changed all of our lives,” said Jacki Gilbert of Baltimore. “She never quit.”
Rick and Rosa Housman of Washington were not deterred by the long line of people seeking to pay their respects.
“To me, she’s just the absolute American icon for justice, equality and feminism in all its forms,” Rosa Housman said.
Ginsburg's death ignited a partisan battle over the high court vacancy, one Republicans have longed to fill while they control the White House and Senate. Trump has refrained from naming a nominee until most of Ginsburg's ceremonies are completed, but he has made no secret of his intent to act quickly with the Nov. 3 election approaching.
The leading candidate, federal appeals court Judge Amy Coney Barrett of Indiana, was at the White House Monday and Tuesday for meetings. Other women, including federal appeals court Judge Barbara Lagoa of Florida, are in contention. Trump said he'll announce his nominee at 5 p.m. Saturday.
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Senate Republicans are falling into line behind the goal of confirming the nominee with unusual speed by Election Day. The strictly partisan plan has mobilized Democrats against the prospect of a far more conservative court, perhaps for decades to come. Millions of dollars are being spent by both sides in an effort to seat or defeat Trump's nominee.
Three days of honor
For the next three days, it will be Ginsburg – the diminutive Brooklyn native who led the legal battle for women's equality in the 1970s, then served for four decades on the nation's two most powerful courts – who commands attention.
A New York City native who attended Harvard Law School before graduating from Columbia Law School, Ginsburg was a law professor at Columbia and Rutgers before President Jimmy Carter named her to the powerful U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in 1980. She was elevated by President Clinton in 1993, winning Senate confirmation by a vote of 96-3.
During President Barack Obama's second term, Ginsburg did not heed the advice of some liberal allies to retire so Democrats could replace her. After Trump's upset victory in 2016, she battled cancer and other ailments to remain in office, once participating in oral arguments from her hospital bed.
All eight sitting justices and some of their spouses attended Wednesday's ceremony inside the otherwise shuttered court, along with retired Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy and Maureen Scalia, Justice Scalia's widow. The only woman to precede Ginsburg on the nation's highest bench, her close friend Sandra Day O'Connor, has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and could not be present.
The public will have the chance to pay their respects from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday, and from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday under the portico at the top of the courthouse steps.
Contributing: Jay Cannon and David Jackson
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Liberal justice makes last trip to Supreme Court